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  • A Response to Charles Bernstein
  • John Timberman Newcomb (bio)

Charles Bernstein's article heralds an exciting new phase in an ongoing canonical expansion in American literature, which has profoundly changed what we mean by "modernist poetry" over the past two decades. When I started graduate school at Duke in 1981, an eminence grise of modern poetry studies—himself a pioneer of the struggle to get modernism into the American literary academy in the first place—gave me a sheet of paper identifying, without detectable uncertainty, the six twentieth-century poets I needed to know for a doctorate in American literature. This fine mentor proved true to his handout. Through my doctoral exams and beyond, those half dozen were the ones I needed to know, my canon: a familiar group born between 1879 and 1899 who were (and sometimes still are) identified as high modernists, with all the evaluative potency that term implies. Others might have swapped in someone else for Marianne Moore or Hart Crane, and a few atavists might still have balked at according William Carlos Williams full parity with the Big Three, but I daresay that something close to this narrow, homogeneous canon was encountered by my contemporaries at many other schools.

A quarter century later, that old canon now appears as a relic of another age, a six-headed alliance of convenience and circumstance, rather than the coherent intellectual constellation it seemed then. How much, after all, does Williams's work really have to do with T. S. Eliot's, except that both were friends with Ezra Pound? A similarly specious transitivity, this time flowing through Williams, underlies any ostensible relation of Wallace Stevens to Pound. The work of my six, and perhaps yours, possessed no discernible technical attribute or political slant in common, but did [End Page 369] share this much: with intermittent exceptions it resisted easy consumption by nonspecialists and required a level of serious intellectual attention sufficient to demonstrate modernism's centrality to the scholarly study of American literature—a position that encountered strong institutional resistance well into the 1960s. Whatever its disciplinary expediency, however, I found "difficulty" was specious as a canonical criterion, since the deep background of my graduate study was studded by fleeting encounters with plenty of other claimants to modernist difficulty—Mina Loy, John B. Wheelwright, Conrad Aiken, Louise Bogan, to name just four—obviously serious poets who were not accorded much canonical attention no matter how cryptic their work became. And was I typing myself as a hopeless sub-modernist when I responded with such enthusiasm to less difficult poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg? Over the years, as the apparent cohesion of this narrow canon has eroded under the pressure of more historically sensitive scholarship and the need for its legitimizing authority has abated, "high modernism" in American poetry has come to look more and more like the exertion of pure aesthetic ideology: it was simply what we called the ones who had been deemed worthy of the modernist ivory tower.

Now modernist poetry appears to me, and no doubt to many others, a lot closer to Bernstein's vision of a sprawling "epic collage poem of innovative and traditional poetry," exemplified by the boldly inclusive Library of America anthology American Poetry: The Twentieth Century (2000). The particular twist Bernstein gives to this canonical expansion is to emphasize the modernism of vernacular musical genres, especially the lyrics—and performances—of artists working in pop, blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and ethnically inflected vaudeville. It's exhilarating to listen as he collapses old distinctions of "high" and "low" into a twentieth-century babel echoing with as many inflections of ethnicity, gender, and region as there are different voices, and promising us a big-hearted and inclusive modernism carrying us far beyond the old "great divide" that once segregated the genres and institutional precincts of elite and mass culture. And it's exactly my profound sympathy for Bernstein's project that compels me to ask some skeptical questions that I hope may aid in ramifying and strengthening it. The first of these questions involves its temporal parameters, and will then lead toward some scrutiny of what...


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pp. 369-380
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